Category Archives: Victor Hugo

Thoughts: The Man Who Laughs

The Man Who LaughsThe Man Who Laughs by Victor Hugo
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Oh, pathetic division of an intellect, of a will, of a brain, between two brothers who are enemies! the Phantom of Poverty and the Phantom of Wealth! Abel and Cain in the same man!

Romanticism at its finest – or should I say at its most indulgent.

Hugo weaves a tale thematically similar to his others – ascending his poetic podium to lecture on the plight of the socially disenfranchised and the tragically fated – with his signature ability to embellish dualities which simultaneously describe unity between characters and symbols. If we follow him; find our place in his monolithic scope of the human experience, we may even catch a glimpse of warm redemption and happiness within the .

I enjoyed the symbolic feuds and implied parleys. I appreciated the ideas. But I did not myself envision any of them. Hugo takes it upon himself to think for the reader – to analyze every thought-process and action, every scene and character dynamic, leaving the poor reader to either swallow the spoonfuls or reject them outright. But what real choice do we have but to swallow them? It is, afterall, Victor Hugo.

Nevertheless, I admit that his analyses, his definitive romantic tendency to “tell” rather than “show”, even with flawlessly chosen words and artful dictation, burdened the reading experience with a sense of arduous journeying rather than blissful discovery.

But I cannot think of any better lecturer than Victor Hugo.

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Posted by on October 11, 2014 in Victor Hugo


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A Clearer Vision of Jean Valjean

Jean Valjean

I remember the thrill when I learned that Hollywood began work on the film adaption of Les Miserables – my favorite book. I had seen the adaption with Liam Neeson and Geoffrey Rush and enjoyed it, despite its ending. But I also remember the catastrophic feeling when I discovered that Tom Hooper would direct a musical adaption.

Hugo’s book changed me. It reinvigorated every hope and ideal I bear for humanity. I exposed myself to the broadway musical long after reading the book. I purposely ignored it because I wanted to leave my impression of the story unblemished by other mediums. Had I seen the musical first, I would feel differently. Therefore, and I hope fans of the musical can forgive me, the stage show left me wanting. The soul-reviving experience which awaits the reader remains void from the stage. The broadway patron may wail at the music, revel in the nostalgia conjured by the songs, yet remain distracted, or content with a surface understanding, from the journey undertaken by Valjean’s soul.

Late Christmas night, I left for the movie theater alone. Those dearest to me wished to attend the film by my side but I hoped, and secretly knew, that this experience would hold the promise of a certain intimacy. I refused to present any socially acceptable demeanor or chit-chat during the rolling credits. I planned to expose every raw nerve in my being to the wonder of this tale.

Honestly, I applaud Hooper for heading this film. For Les Miserables, as opposed to other musicals, I found that presenting the story with a combination of film and musical ensures the retention of emotional integrity in a condensed story line. The music fills the emotional gaps left after writers understandably extract much of Hugo’s diatribes and embellishments – parts of the novel when he delves deeply into the human heart. When adapting any book, certain elements simply will not articulate through any other medium. THe music seemed to compensate for this problem. Also, I thought that seeing the story on film rather than on the stage gives the viewer a clearer idea of the plot.

This is my idea.

Critics categorize Les Miserables as a story of redemption. After reading the novel, I had trouble compartmentalizing it this way. Yet after the film, I understood Valjean’s redemption as a freedom not from his criminality or his victimization but from his own hatred of the world which scorned him and treated him unjustly. I often feel that our modern culture encourages humanity to embrace their hatred and return blows born from injustice and oppression. Yet the soul inevitably drowns in such hatred and bitter resentment.

In the first stage of Valjean’s growth, he experiences the childhood idiom of death by kindness at the hand of the Bishop of Digne. After devastating internal struggles, this death inspires him to abandon his hatred, even his identity, in order to grow as a better man. Also, consider how Valjean kills Inspector Javert with kindness by sparing his life, as the bishop had spared him. Yet Javert makes a different choice. Because Valjean yearns for a life free of bitterness, he changes. Because Javert yearns for definition, to add purpose to his life by defending the written law, he chooses to end his life since the cornerstone of his existence crumbles from the blow of forgiveness, something the law cannot enforce, regulate or contain. Hugo contrasts these two men in order to clearly define a fulfilled life, free of the law’s bonds and able to forgive when the law does not, and exemplify the power of hope and choice. Valjean frees himself from the confines of the written law, as personified by Inspector Javert, by living according to the law of love, forgiveness and understanding.

After leaving the bishop, and his identity, Valjean embarks on a philanthropic mission to better those whose bitter experience he once shared. He embraces a duty to help those who haven’t transcended above their station as he has. In his own way, he seeks to change the world through his own power, by economic means fueled by his moral code. However, as men do, he fails. He did great things for a town, brought resounding aid and blesses many of those under his influence. But to change the world through this methodology, one cannot settle for anything less than a perfect record. One cannot build a perfect home while using a few rotten planks of wood. One cannot boast of %100 when he succeeded only with %99.9. A man does not weild the power to completely expel suffering from all mankind.

Valjean withered under the shame-inducing glare of Fantine – how she slipped through his control, his circle of blessings, how he shriveled knowing that his power could have saved her. Despite all the prosperity he brought to unfortunates within his jurisdiction, he revolutionizes himself again because of one fallen angel. To use one’s own power brings the certainty of imperfection. Valjean tries to revolutionize society, much like Marius and his compatriots, through the power of his own hands and innovation. Marius and Enjolras fail. As does Valjean. If they had endeavored to change a few lives, on whatever scope they dreamed, perhaps we could gauge their success differently. But they set out to change the world and nothing but a changed world will prove any success at all.

As Valjean vanquishes Javert, and metaphorically (or perhaps religiously) the law, with kindness and compassion, Marius and his friends try to overthrow a political system with force and might. Valjean defeats his enemy not by his own reckoning but through the transformative power of love and selflessness. During his third stage of growth, Valjean experiences the overpowering control of love and the redemption of releasing one’s self. In love lies the power to change the world through the transformation of being. Valjean transforms the world by revolutionizing his life. Of course, the world carries on as it had, but for Valjean, Cossette, Marius and Fantine, the world changes. The world contains love and the possibilities of compassion and hope. Many unfortunates cannot see it through their chains of hate and injustice and cruelty and man-made blindfolds. Yet after experiencing a change within themselves, a freedom from self and all earthly bonds, the world does change as they see it seemingly for the first time.

Through this transformation, Jean Valjean frees himself from the bondage of judicial and oppressive turmoil and breaks into a seemingly new world of love where such turmoil cannot touch him, a world he only needed to experience and to freely give of himself.

I left the theater sobbing – overwhelmed by hope.

One can live such a life.

Even if it takes their entire lives, I want my children vulnerable to the glory of selflessness and love, looking down from the zenith of a new world, immune from the chains of their own hatred – every raw nerve exposed to the wonders of freedom and redemption.

My Initial Reactions After Reading the Book

Les MisérablesLes Misérables by Victor Hugo
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

If I were still in school, I would begin a lengthy analysis of this book with genuine excitement. As it is, I will simply dictate my general reactions so as not to rob readers of the sublime joy of reading this book.

Regarding the author: there are few who can effectively mix the beauty of poetry and the brilliance prose with one stroke of the pen. Victor Hugo is one of these geniuses. He conveys the authority of a man who has lived the various levers of life. He is the personification of Wisdom. And he, the master, commands that wisdom, in all its manifestations of historical episodes, social philosophies and characterizations.

His artistry is unparalleled in word and literary construction. Sections which are seemingly tangential tie in with indispensable characters and events. Paris herself is a character and her history serves to supply depth to the efficacy of her civilization. By juxtaposing Jean Valjean, who weaves unnoticed into threads of other characters’ lives, to Javert, Thenardier and Marius – and Cossette – one finds the flawless masterpiece of a life well-lived, the Hell of social order and the liberty of personal justice and conscience, the humane flourishing where men never reason to find it and fumble recklessly to control it. If only we were all bishops and all knew a Jean Valjean. If only we were all Jean Valjean and didn’t need prison or a bishop to become so great!

Hugo described Les Miserables, within Les Miserables, as the MARCH from evil to good. Yet one must have a general grasp of what Hugo considers evil and what he considers good. From the story and its players, we know that neglecting the unfortunate is evil, the unconditional aid to those in need is good – the suppression of the people is evil, the insurrection of Right over the letter of institutional law is good – to live dutifully by conscience is good while stringently adhering to the fical sway of politics is evil. Yet the story is just that, a march. Les Miserables is not the next Communist Manifesto or Declaration of Independence. Les Miserables is a world of consequence and the struggle to realize the best of humanity.

This march sounds romantic and glorious, worthy of epic poetry and fantasy. Yet Hugo draws it as reasonable reality – something attainable and admirable. Inspiring. To wholly give oneself to the betterment of the unfortunate, even if at times they are the infamous masked over, to neglect only one’s self within any social order, is the epitome of love and life.

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Posted by on December 29, 2012 in Victor Hugo


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Thoughts: The Toilers of the Sea

The Toilers of the SeaThe Toilers of the Sea by Victor Hugo
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

You hear that? The earth just shook a little because Ernest Hemingway, after vomiting on himself, shook his fist in disgust as one more reader found The Toilers of the Sea.

Victor Hugo, the modern era’s poet philosopher, ponders Man’s relationship with nature. He musters every ounce of his romantic emotion and universal sooth-saying while still dictating precise details regarding the actions, jargon and sciences of the cultural entity in the Norman archipelago. But, of course, a social dissentor like Hugo can’t ignore the naggging urge to satirically bash superstitious nonsense and ignorant judgements rampant through the towns on Guernsey and Jersey. Neither can he ignore another ever-present urge to execute long-winded diatribes about his setting. Alas, as with Hemingway, one endures tortures in order to experience the feeling of ethereal satisfaction upon closing their book.

Because Hugo wrote The Toilers of the Sea while in exile on the Channel, I thought his ideas about the conflict between man and nature might resemble the social conflicts between man and society. As I progressed through the book, I felt Hugo’s hand paternally patting my shoulder as if to say, “It would have been a nice idea, but let’s go a little deeper.” And deeper we went.

My perspective on Man’s role and place within nature broadened immensely as I read about Gilliatt’s struggles in the Douvre reef as he attempts to save the engines from the successful sea merchants innovative steam ship, the Durande. Symbolically, of course, the steam ship, like any other industrial development, stands as an afront to nature and, as Hugo so sarcastically insinuats, to God. In saving the engines from a ruined Durande, held captive in the Douvre rocks, battered by nature, Man asserts his dominance over nature, even when it volleys its harshest artilery at him.

But something actually bothers me about Hugo’s story. I found his personification of nature, his description of the sea and her power, embittered with human emotions like a formidable foe on a battlefield, excessive and tiresome. Hemingway high-five. Yet this distaste, to my surprise, led me down a path which Hugo may or may not have intended. At first, I noticed how Gilliatt derived meaning for his own life and struggles from viewing nature as a personified entity. Do men really struggle against nature, or themselves? Perhaps this perspective on nature derives from an emotional or conditional projection of ones own existence, therefore injecting value into one’s ego. We view nature as an adversary because it bolsters our sense of cosmic importance, much like actual wars, which we wage oftentimes for principle, would solidy our place in a civilization and add credence to our ways of life.

But then I wondered how Gilliatt could curse nature but subsist on its bounty for survival simultaneously. Why chastise a rock as a malicious adversary, part of a sea trying to destroy him, then watch that same sea indifferently smash and batter that same rock? Then I finally wondered why, at the end of it all, Gilliatt did not display any pride, any triumphant celebrations. What did he learn? What does he know now that I do not?

Hugo revealed his philosophy on Man’s relationship with nature – not against nature, not versus nature. As in so many other cases, especially with God, Man thinks of his foe only when he notices it blocking his own profit or prosperity. We think of ourselves at odds with nature only when the storm comes. We feel a peace, a happiness, even, I daresay, a unity with nature when Spring comes, the flowers bloom, the scented breeze sooths and the trees shade. Can we exist united with nature in these cases but then sever the treaty when the storm comes? Or ought we to be like the rock and endure the pleasant and the storm in the same fashion? Similary, Mess Lethierry, the Durande’s owner who rises to immense profits and, after the shipwreck, dives into deep depressions and social ruin, must weather the calm and the storm. His daughter, who must marry one man while loving another, must endure such a calamity as she endured the bliss of riches and innocence before coming of age.

But, again, what did Gilliatt learn? Why did he not return home as a triumphant war hero, happy in his newfound valued ego? Hugo will not tell us, but one might infer it from Gilliatt’s actions – another Hemingway high-five. Without disclosing the final events of the novel, consider whether man himself exists as a benign part of the natural cycle. Man need not fight nature, except in his own ignorant egoism, but at a high level of understanding knows that, like nature, he is responsible to bring the calm, raise the flowers and provide the shade for others while enduring the destructive powers which the same nature brings. Man can end the storms in others’ lives. He can endure the violence of the tempest and act out the beauty of Eden. He needs not stop one any more than the other. He exists as a part of the cycle, ready to pass on as easily as promote the well-being of his fellow man.

Man ebbs and flows with nature no matter the contrary efforts and arguments for which he toils. He enjoys the ethereal quality of creation while respecting the power of destruction – embracing life and death both in their might and beauty. He cannot alter either and in fighting one he severs himself from the other in an ignorant display of fical egoism, benefitting only to himself, and loses before his adversary ever breaks a sweat.

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Posted by on December 16, 2012 in Victor Hugo


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Thoughts: The Hunchback of Notre Dame

The Hunchback of Notre-DameThe Hunchback of Notre-Dame by Victor Hugo
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

First of all, forget everything you think you know about this story based on Disney films or other adaptions. This is a horrid account of death in the stylings of Shakespearean tragedy offset by brilliant and imaginitive prose.

Victor Hugo craftily employs character contrast, metaphor, split narrative, etc to render “Hunchback”. Without going to much into detail, I will say these are merely devices by which Hugo drafts the misunderstandings and tragedy that would ensue through the story: Esmerelda misunderstanding Phoebus’ “love” and being wrongly accused for a death that did not happen, Claude Frollo misunderstanding how to express love and how to fill the void left in its absence, the parentage of several characters, the King’s orders without proper information, etc.

Quasimodo seems to be the only character in tune with his own quality, as ugly and mis-shapen as he is. And thusly, like the great cathedral herself, he watches this all unfold and reacts in a fairly dumb, child-like fashion. The final events of the story could have all been avoided had certain social or cultural qualities been eliminated, which is, I’m sure, Hugo’s point.

It is a fantastic read, but be warned – you will not put the book down feeling good about…anything.

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Posted by on April 25, 2012 in Victor Hugo


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Thoughts: Bug-Jargal

Bug-Jargal (A historical novel)Bug-Jargal by Victor Hugo
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Night and the day, when united,
Bring forth the light.

I am an addict.

Yet I do not scrounge for my fix, nor do I hope for it. But when I find it, I harken back to all the previous times when it satisfied me and shiver at the shock of its course. Then again, my drug fills everything and everytime. My needle and my pipe neither inject nor bellow smoke but rather peel away the layers of exhaustive thinking which blanket the brilliance of my drug.

When concluding a book, certain last sentences release the unutterable radiance of understanding – not an idea or a smart conjecture, but something already in existence, simply noticed. And I reach the high of a blown mind.

No other writer, for me, deserves my unwavering trust to fulfill my need for this graceful electricity. Bug-Jargal, albeit an overly-romantic novella, measures the quality of humanity in its capacity for true justice, honor, friendship, sacrifice, love, vengeance and failure.

Hugo bases the story on the Haitian slave uprising in the late 18th century. His protagonist, Captain Leopold D’Auverney, narrates his experience during the uprising. Hugo knits the entire story in the first-person narrative style which, in my opinion, adds a certain level of fallibility but humanity to it. I shutter to hear some readers chastise this work as inexcusably racist when the white Captain, a product of French imperialism and racial injustice, tells the story! And tell me: if the events dictated from his perspective began as morally obligatory to sensitive racial issues, what room is left for Hugo to transform the Captain himself? His judgement throughout the narrative had proven erroneous so why wouldn’t we, the reader, condemn him as a bigot with an opportunity for redemption rather than chastise the book as a promotion for racist sentiments?

Hugo layers his theme of justice and brotherhood through personal and societal levels. After the uprising, D’Auverney describes the character of the newly formed black army which, after several examples brilliantly symbolic of mental and physical oppression, simply emulates the oppressions of their white masters. Hugo readily condemns nearly every suppressive weapon employed by those in power by mirroring their uses by blacks on whites. Some readers may choose to end their reasoning here and enjoy the ignorant comforts of condemning one race for attempting to right a wrong with the same wrong – and thereby defending their wrong by displacing it on those perpetrating the same evil. In either case, the cycle of vengeance never ends! Where some see evil, reason to fear and hate, I see humanity! I see equality!

Hugo also sees disease – which spreads through all close-quarter groups whether in the grips of battle or the beds of separate peace.

Pierrot, a slave with a mighty history, patrols these happenings like Dostoevsky’s Christ visiting the Spanish Inquisition. He both commands obedience and the worship of his fellow slaves and befriends our captain. The nature of their relationship and the intrigue of his character add a particularly romantic, mystical and entirely fascinating element to the novella, which I will not spoil here. But I found their relationship and the circumstances which cultivated it starkly different from the relationship between the groups of blacks and whites. For D’Auverney and Pierrot, two individuals guided by virtue rather than vengeance, love for humanity rather than brother, the end proved bitter in a bloated and selfish worldly system without space for their substance.

My drug paraphernalia reads, “‘Who can tell if the bullets of the enemy nay not have spared his head for his country’s guillotine?'” If a man fights an enemy to take their power, he will likely enjoy the praise of those he leads. But a man who fights to liberate humanity, a true liberation of all life, will not only find an enemy in evil but also in those he seeks to save. In order to transcend such opposition, at both ends of the power pendulum, the liberator must honor his code of virtue, as opposed to the approach taken by oppressors, even to an unjust and ungrateful end for the sake of righteous living under the dictation of justice and love rather than pride, for the sake of all people whom he endeavors to liberate.

Through both Pierrot and the captain life itself seemed liberated from the chains of injured pride and hateful recompense. Where both white and black stood enslaved to the guttural urge to take the other eye, to shift power from one to the other only to perpetrate the same lingering evil, two men willfully succumbed to the graces of virtue, the abandonment of that evil, and the best of enlightened man.

In this sense, we can all be “the slave become king, the prisoner a liberator.”?

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Posted by on January 6, 2012 in Victor Hugo


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